Red Dad, Blue Son

My dad is conservative. I’m not. For our relationship to survive, we had to stop talking politics.

Red Dad, Blue SonPhotograph by Erin Patrice O'Brien
Things were going great. On the last night of our family reunion two years ago, my 62-year-old father and I walked along a beach in South Carolina, glasses of wine in our hands, and soaked in the warm air, the full moon, and the gravity of the years. I’m my dad’s first child and only son, now married with three kids, a career, and a mortgage. From the surf, we could both see his grandchildren silhouetted in the glowing windows of the rented beach house. The moment for a toast had arrived.

And that’s when my dad started talking about the Tea Party.

Somewhere along the way, my dad had come to believe that trying to sell me on his conservative politics was the equivalent of bonding. His opining, however, has always had the same effect on me: My jaw clenches, my back stiffens, and the charge of political discord transforms the most beautiful moon on the East Coast into a naked lightbulb hanging in an interrogation room. Suddenly, I’m trapped with a right-wing pundit who happens to be my dad.

Ever since George W. Bush beat Al Gore in 2000, the chronic red-blue conflict in America hasn’t just been a spectacle on cable news; it’s invaded our family’s phone calls, vacations, e-mails, text messages, Facebook posts. It nearly destroyed my relationship with my own father.

Our father-son differences date back to high school, when my dad, an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, personally wrote the essay for my application to a military academy, which I passionately opposed with a declaration that I was a “nonconformist” meant for unconventional pursuits (i.e., tramping around like Jack Kerouac). But the arguments we’d had about politics in recent years had been of a different intensity altogether.

During phone calls and visits home, the day’s news headlines were like a background hum growing louder and louder, overwhelming us. It would start innocently enough: My dad would coyly ask what I thought of, say, the latest skirmish over gay marriage. “It’s certainly a complicated issue,” I’d say, as if trying to tiptoe past a sleeping dragon.

Inside, however, I was roiling, considering some close friends who were gay and in committed relationships. Unable to resist, I’d throw out a line to bait him: Hey, isn’t tolerance an option?
“I’m not a live-and-let-live guy,” my dad would assert gruffly, now freed to unleash his own opinions. “I’m live-and-let-live within a certain set of moral values!”

Global warming, immigration, Iraq, Nancy Pelosi—it didn’t matter the subject: Before long, we were both on our soapboxes, red-faced and yelling. Hang ups were frequent. During weekend get-togethers, the simple act of rustling a newspaper to the op-ed page or clicking my tongue at Fox News was enough to send my dad skulking out of the room like a wounded animal. I’d sit on the couch, depressed and confused. My beleaguered mom was left to mediate, trying to cool everybody down so we could at least have dinner together.

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